The heart of the city: Where to now for Auckland’s Queen St?

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What a crock. Property owners in Queen St burst into print last weekend, complaining that plastic sticks, planter boxes and the reduced capacity to handle private cars have ruined retail in the street and made it “hideous”. They’re threatening to take the council to court to stop the street being developed.

Queen St is not looking good right now, that’s certainly true. Auckland Council and Auckland Transport are letting us down: more on that below. But it’s preposterous to suggest that’s why customers are staying away.

Here are some reasons people are no longer shopping so much in Queen St. Many office staff now work from home, at least part of the time. There are no cruise-ship passengers or other overseas tourists. There are few overseas students. Commercial Bay has spirited away many shoppers. Britomart has done the same. High St is having a revival. Wynyard Quarter has spirited away several big corporates, each with hundreds of employees. Some corporates have closed down altogether.

This is the world we live in now and, hard as it is, everyone has to adjust. Some of it is Covid-related and may improve over time, although we do not know this. But the rise of the new centres of retail and corporate life are clearly here to stay. This we do know.

Most of the shops in lower Queen St cater to tourists, who haven’t been here for a year, but the shops hardly seem to have changed their business model.

Here are some more reasons the shoppers don’t turn up so much. Anchor tenant Zara chose Sylvia Park, not Queen St. Anchor tenant David Jones chose Westfield in Newmarket, not Queen St. The Newmarket Business Association has worked hard and successfully, after a false start in Nuffield St, to attract shoppers. The Ponsonby Business Association has done the same.

Topshop opened in Queen St as an outlet store for stock that didn’t sell in Europe, and that turned out to be a recipe for failure. Many shops on Queen St are allowed to remain empty.

Here’s another one. Prior to Covid, Queen St had the most dangerous air of any urban place in the country and it was getting worse. The pollutant is black carbon, more commonly known as soot, and it comes from older diesel buses, trucks, ferries and other ships. It can kill.

None of this is in dispute, or should be. The Covid factors caught us by surprise, are nobody’s fault and now define a new reality we all have to build on. The non-Covid factors, which collectively run much deeper, have been a long time coming. None of them should have surprised anyone.

Andrew Krukziener, one of the complaining property owners, says, “Our proposal is very simple. Return Queen St to as it was December 2019 pre-Covid, because it wasn’t broken.”

Yes, it was. The underlying realities of retail on Queen St make it hard to think how much more broken it could have been.

Just to be clear, what Krukzeiner means when he says “Queen St pre-Covid” is a four-lane road for cars, with more car parks on the street and congestion most of the day.

That will not make Queen St a more attractive place for shoppers.

As it happens, there is one more reason people aren’t shopping in Queen St the way they used to. You could say it’s the biggest reason of all.

While the world has changed around them, many of the property owners and retailers have sat on their hands.

They complain endlessly about the lack of private motor vehicles and car parks and the ugly plastic sticks. But have they done enough to keep the shoppers they have? To win back the ones they’ve lost?

Have they done, in short, what every good business in a market economy is supposed to do?

Britomart and Commercial Bay are eating Queen St’s lunch. City centres all over the world are rejuvenating by making themselves more appealing to pedestrians and people wanting to linger. But the strategy of Queen St property owners has been little more than to block progress and demand the council fix their problems.

Walk up and down the street and see if you can find anything – any sign at all – that businesses there are reinventing themselves, are working out how to make themselves indispensable to the life of the city. Are fighting back.

Does this sound too harsh? I know it’s really hard, running a shop on Queen St. Covid has been so damaging for so many retailers, especially those who rely on visitors to the city. For many, the roadworks in the Queen St valley have been even more disruptive. They’re sick of it all.

I get that. The retailers deserve our sympathy and support. But the property owners – their landlords – are the ones leading the complaints now and they aren’t obviously showing their tenants that support. Calling for the street to be returned to a time when it was already failing is plainly absurd.

It was a good time for the landlords – they’re Auckland property owners, for heaven’s sake. But not for anyone else.

The reality now is that Commercial Bay is not going to close. The big corporates like Datacom and ASB Bank that have relocated to Wynyard Quarter will not return. Newmarket, Ponsonby and elsewhere will keep seducing shoppers with their competing offers.

Companies that have closed down, like Bauer Media, will not start up again. Bauer had more than 300 people employed at CityWorks Depot, just three blocks from Queen St. Now, a few dozen people keep some of the magazines going, scattered in offices and homes in the suburbs. The Bauer story is not uncommon.

And you know the other thing that’s not coming back? All the cars. We live in an age when companies like Genesis are abolishing their staff parking and turning to public transport, bikes and scooters.

Surprisingly, the leading architect Pip Cheshire was listed alongside the property owners who believe the street would be better if it filled with cars.

He seems to regret it. He told me he was concerned about the look of the street now, but does not oppose the “extension and promotion of public transport” and was “most reluctant to be party to legal action against council for failure to respond to initiatives of which I have had no prior knowledge”.

He asked them to take his name off the protest and was told it was too late.

The big question now, is this: What’s the point of Queen St?

It’s no longer the biggest, brightest and best street in the Queen City. It hasn’t been that for a long time. What’s Queen St for now?

It’s not hard to imagine how some things will go in the central city over the next few years. Commercial Bay will bed itself in, High St and Fort St will make the most of their pedestrian-friendly status and boom, the City Rail Link will bring twice as many commuters right into the middle of town. Quay St will come alive and the port will give up the finger wharves, thus opening up great possibilities for the downtown waterfront.

The central city will be rejuvenated and will thrive. But Queen St itself? What part will it play in all that?

The sad and sorry story of the Queen St plan

Queen St property owners are wrong to blame council for ruining a street already deeply in trouble. But they are right that council’s role in “improving” it has been dreadful.

Planning has proceeded unevenly. Before Covid, the Auckland Design Office (ADO) presented the governing body of council with a new City Centre Masterplan (CCMP), which showed Queen St with less room for cars, more room for pedestrians and light rail running on tracks laid into the street.

The ADO also presented its related plan, called Access for Everyone (A4E), which proposes ways to manage traffic so that it’s largely kept out of the central city.

To be clear, all these plans allow access for service and delivery, disability and emergency services vehicles.

They were adopted with strong support by council and they form the basis of the work being done on Queen St today.

But between the 2019 agreement on the CCMP and now, things have gone awry. First, council abolished the ADO.

If this was not a deliberate strategy to reduce the influence of urban designers in the city’s planning, it certainly had that effect. Engineers and professional managers took over.

Next, Covid struck, and temporary realignments to the footpaths and roadway were quickly made, to allow for social distancing.

The council modified that work, in response to protests: road cones were replaced with the plastic sticks. It was modified again later, in response to more protests, with the addition of white blocks of concrete and more planter boxes.

Although some members of the former ADO remained involved, they had little authority and the work has plainly been inadequate.

It’s a mystery why anyone would think the sticks and blocks and planter boxes have any place on what is supposed to be the premier street in the entire country. But they did.

And as the complaints rose, council didn’t pull everything out, because that would have cost close to $100,000, which it didn’t have, and besides, the CCMP work was due to start.

Now we’re about to move on.

The Herald spoke to the council officials directly responsible for the project now: Barry Potter, the council’s infrastructure manager, who took over when the ADO was abolished, and Daniel Newcombe, who heads up the AT work.

Within a few weeks, they said, the bottom block, from Customs St to Shortland St, will have all the existing “street furniture” removed, the footpaths will be widened to the existing line of sticks and boxes, and “quality” street furniture and other design features will be installed.

It’s a pilot and will be subject to feedback and review. If it works, the project will be extended up Queen St.

A construction company has been appointed and the design stage is giving way to delivery. Auckland Transport (AT) is taking over.

But, they said, the design isn’t finished. Newcombe said they’ll be widening the footpaths in a manner similar to the boardwalks on High St, although it may not be the same. Also, “We’ll have higher-specification planters and other street furniture.”

Potter said they are also “looking at other things to lift the design”.

Neither was prepared to show the Herald designs or renders of what it will look like. It’s highly unusual to be this close to construction without having anything to show, but they said they’re still talking and the visuals aren’t ready.

The council was able to provide only old images from the masterplan developed earlier, which do not show the new plans.

Potter said the whole project has been developed in a “co-design” process, which involves various stakeholders contributing to the outcome.

Heart of the City was part of that, along with several property owners, including Andrew Krukzeiner.

“We’ve had workshops and several one-on-one meetings,” said Potter. “There was quite a wide range of people. That’s the reason it’s taken so long: because of all the talking.”

But will it be good enough? The Herald asked the officials what they thought was the point of Queen St now.

“People are opposed to temporary fixes,” said Newcombe. “They want long-term quality. And there’s a clear mandate to give the place a people focus, with a transit role too.”

Potter said the point of Queen St “is as it’s always been”.

Once Covid has gone, he expects the shoppers and office workers to return. “People want to get together. We’ve got to have a quality place for them to want to be there. People will come back and business will thrive.”

But how will this happen?

Newcombe said one of the problems now is that people just pass through. He said there should be “places for people to linger, get a coffee, sit under a tree or whatever. Eat an icecream.”

Neither official would talk costs but Potter said there was enough funding for the pilot stage, “to get it to the kind of space we want it to be”. More funding will follow.

And who is in charge of urban design planning, now the ADO has been abolished?

“I’d say most of the work has already been done,” said Potter, referring to Queen St, “so there isn’t the same need for that.”

How to improve Queen St

Improving Queen St is a job for landlords and their tenants, and for council and its agencies and officials. And for the rest of us, actually. Some suggestions . . .

Have the damn parade

Why are we not having an America’s Cup parade? Set a date and tell Grant Dalton they all have to be there. Then sit down with retailers, arts groups and others to make a plan: how to make it the most fantastic event on Queen St ever, for everyone. With Parade Day Specials, competitions and a hundred other enticements in all the shops.

Open more cafes and restaurants

What’s essential for any shopping precinct? What kind of retail outlets do people use most often? And what’s missing in Queen St? The answer to each question is the same: a good range of places to eat.

The primary reason for this is the rents: cafes can’t afford them. So, who’s going to change that?

The poor range of hospitality venues is especially telling in the “arts precinct”, in and around the strip from Q Theatre down past the town hall to the Civic.

Learn from Britomart

When Cooper and Co developed Britomart, they curated the whole experience. In particular, they found the tenants they wanted – shops, bars and restaurants, corporates for the big buildings – and made them offers they couldn’t refuse.

They also employed people to create and run a programme of markets, entertainments, exhibitions and other activities in the open Takutai Square. They kept the architects and landscape designers up to the mark. They added services like valet parking for those who needed it.

That’s the property owners doing the mahi, because a city centre doesn’t look after itself.

Queen St could do with that attitude. Why aren’t they saying, We’re going to beat Coopers at their own game?

Keep the shops full, whatever

Landlords surely know that nothing kills the life of a street more than empty shops. Where there’s one, another will follow. Rough sleepers will follow too, because empty doorways are good places to spend the night.

If landlords don’t want that, why don’t they keep the shops full?

Commercial Bay owners Precinct Properties enticed several startups and suburban stores to open in that complex: the landlord helped the tenants get established.

How many promising retailers would like to give Queen St a try but are wary of the commitment? How many arts groups, food trucks, service centres, health workers and others would like to give it a go?

Many landlords are already helping their tenants. But the empty shops suggest they’re not all doing enough.

And why does the council leave its own shops unfilled? The former Esquires premises in the Wellesley St corner of the central library, visible from Queen St, is empty: it’s a top spot, so why?

Letting shops remain empty is urban vandalism.

Knock down some buildings

We don’t need all the undistinguished smaller buildings. How about replacing two or three of them with pocket parks?

Or with allotments, for inner-city residents to hire?

What, someone will lose money? Those things will bring people to Queen St: if you want, think of them as ways to generate customers for the shops in the other buildings.

Repurpose some buildings

Queen St probably needs another food hall. If could definitely do with a drop-in arts centre/studio complex/meeting hall/exhibition space of some kind.

The Auckland Museum has just opened a marvellous new show about the city: why doesn’t it have an outpost showroom in Queen St to entice people up the hill to the Domain?

What about a permanent venue dedicated to the future of Auckland? A place for exhibitions, interactive displays, meetings, a place where people can go and debate the merits of newspaper articles like this one.

Put a bomb under the universities

Universities are where you find the densest ratio of extremely smart, fascinating, experienced communicators anywhere on the planet, and we have three of them (the University of Auckland and AUT University, plus a thriving outpost of Massey University). Why do they all engage so little, in a public way, with the city?

How about a series of public lectures and debates, in the larger empty shop fronts?

Change the shop hours

Why do most shops shut at or before the time many people go home?

Learn from Louis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton knows its market. That store offers shoppers not merely things to buy but an entire, exquisite experience, for people who want nothing less. The shoppers love it and they return.

Sports shops could look into their own customers’ souls and work out how to make them happy. Why can’t you go into a Queen St store and hit golf balls, or witness a live panel debate with smart, funny people on the weekend’s big games, or talk to an All Black every Friday lunchtime?

Do those souvenir shops desperate for the return of the cruise ships think they could do any more right now than just stare in vain at the empty horizon, still hoping to sell some merch?

Adventure outfitters, clothing stores, entertainment tech stores, food shops, children’s shops, you name it, could all do this. Offer an experience their shoppers really want.

Where’s Smith & Caughey’s busy, captivating and entrancing programme of events?

Work with iwi

Ngāti Whātua are major landowners in the city, and other iwi also have a range of commercial and cultural interests and values. It’s about time we saw more of it in Queen St, and that requires everyone to rise to the challenge.

Supercharge the festivals

Through the year, Queen St is the principal home to an arts festival, film festival, writers festival, comedy festival, buskers festival and cultural festivals like Diwali. Where are the great dine/show packages? Why don’t the shops make the most of these events with window displays, instore events and special opening hours?

Sort out the St James

The magnificent heritage-listed venue is too dangerous to use and too expensive to repair. Somebody has to break that stalemate.

Do your boasting on the street

Heart of the City, the business association, works hard to present events and attractions in and around Queen St, and their website (heartofthecity.co.nz) is always full of enticements.

But why don’t the landlords give them street frontage for their promotions? Where’s the great place to go on Queen St to find out what’s happening?

Separate scooters and cyclists from pedestrians

It’s scandalous that pedestrians are still expected to mix with e-scooter riders and cyclists. For the safety of everyone, scooters and bikes should be confined to their own lanes, with the footpaths free for people walking and the roadway dedicated to those vehicles that need to be in the street.

Get rid of the diesel buses

They’re polluting and, when they’re end to end, a visual wall. Allow in only as few as necessary until electric buses arrive. Stop Press: CityLink buses turn electric this month!

Make Midtown a thing

There’s a fairly major bus terminal straddling Queen St, but you wouldn’t know it. Imagine Midtown with rows of stalls, selling things and showcasing the shops on Queen St itself.

Answer the question

The question is: What is the point of Queen St, now?

How about: It should be our town square. From Aotea Square to the waterfront, make Queen St the linear centre of the city, the place you go to, and spend time in, because it’s chock full of cool events, surprising activities, great shops, excellent little spots to sit and relax, and crowds of people.

Make everything serve that purpose.

It's easy if you really want it

It’s pretty simple, really, or it should be. There are already models of good urban design at scale in this city. The best is the Wynyard Quarter, with its lovely streetscapes and public areas full of entertainments. Traffic isn’t banned on any street, but it’s calmed on all of them.

Wynyard has lots of flash new buildings but you don’t need them to create quality public spaces. And Wynyard was created out of nothing. It could have failed terribly.

Will Queen St be as good as Wynyard? Well, it could be.

It lacks only three things. One: property owners who want to do it. Two: council leaders who know what good looks like and how to get it. At Wynyard, that was Waterfront Auckland and is now Panuku.

And three: excellent urban designers who are empowered to do great work.

Sadly, none of those three conditions yet applies on Queen St.

Think Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Oxford St in London. Many of the boulevards of Paris. Major central city shopping streets everywhere from Houstoun to Helsinki. Shopping streets and plazas in every Australian city. The new Christchurch.

Remove most of the cars for most of the time, replace diesel buses with electric, separate bikes and scooters from foot traffic and motor vehicles. Make it all look great, by putting a boot up council officials to contract top urban designers to do it. And put the other boot up the property owners to play their part.

And then we’ll have it. Queen St: the heart of the city.

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